Iowa has three easy picks for first-team all-Big Ten on defense

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By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Big Ten Conference will announce its postseason football awards on Tuesday.

If cornerback Desmond King, linebacker Josey Jewell and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson aren’t on the first-team defense, there should be an investigation.

All three members of the Iowa football team have performed at an elite level pretty much from start to finish this season. The Iowa defense hasn’t always been elite this season, but to no fault of King, Jewell or Johnson.

It’s hard to think of a time when Iowa has had a better trio of defenders on each line of the defense.

Johnson was a disruptive force against Michigan, scoring Iowa’s first two points on a safety that helped pave the way for a 14-13 victory on Nov. 12 at Kinnick Stadium.

Jewell has been a tackling machine, in space and in traffic, while King basically has neutralized half of the field on pass plays because quarterbacks are reluctant to throw his way.

King only has two interceptions this season after having eight last season when he won the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate defensive back. That statistic is misleading, though, because it doesn’t factor in the importance of shutting down half of the field.

And you probably could count on one hand the number of times King has missed a tackle this season.

Jewell is one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate linebacker. The other four finalists play for SEC schools, so you could say that Jewell is the Big Ten’s most celebrated linebacker at this point.

King isn’t a finalist for the 2016 Jim Thorpe Award, which is probably the result of Iowa losing four games and his interception total dropping from last season.

But those who have the luxury of watching King play on a regular basis know that he has performed at a level equal to or even better than last season.

Iowa’s season appeared to be unraveling after a 41-14 loss at Penn State on Nov. 5 in which the defense allowed 599 yards, including 359 rushing yards.

That same defense has since led an incredible turnaround, allowing just two touchdowns in the last three games against Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska. Those three teams combined for just 23 points against Iowa, including zero for Illinois.

"That loss to Penn State, that was really a punch in the face," Johnson said after the 40-10 victory over Nebraska on Friday. "That indicated that we really needed to step our game up."

This is my 25th season covering the Iowa football team and it’s hard to think of former Hawkeyes who have performed at a higher level than King, Jewell and Johnson have this season.

All three of them are talented, durable and highly competitive, along with being respected leaders.

A case for all-Big Ten also could be made for LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley at running back, for Sean Welsh on the offensive line and for Ron Coluzzi at punter.

Their cases aren’t rock solid, though.

King, Jewell and Johnson would seem to be easy picks, but perhaps my judgment is clouded by covering the team for so long.

But I don’t think so.

My judgment is based on watching all three players perform at an elite level for extended periods of time.

Jewell, with 114 tackles in slightly more than 11 games, has taken his performance to another level after making second-team all-Big Ten last season as a sophomore. So in his case, maybe I’m just stating the obvious that the Decorah native deserves to make first-team all-Big Ten this season.

It might be the same with King, although Michigan cornerback and fellow Detroit native Jourdan Lewis is getting more hype these days, including being a Thorpe Award finalist, whereas King isn’t.

Johnson is by far the most improved of the three star defenders. That partly is due to Jewell and King already having performed at a high level when the season started, but also because the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Johnson has made significant strides this season.

The Lombard, Ill., native made honorable mention all-Big Ten last season, which was fair based on his impact.

So, hopefully, Johnson will be treated fairly again this season by making first-team all-Big Ten based on his impact.